7 Most Common Sensory Offenders
One of the more well-known autistic symptoms is sensory sensitivities. Because autistic people process sensory input differently from NT people, we get overstimulated really easily by things that other people might not notice at all. These sensory incursions are literally everywhere we go.
I present to you a non-exhaustive list of some of the most common sensory offenders we face every single day.
Fluorescent lights are everywhere – stores, schools, workplaces, doctors’ offices, pretty much anywhere we might need to go – and they are a constant bother. They flicker all the time, not just when they’re going out, and they can be impossible to tune out. Not only that, but they often make an irritating humming noise that can sound a lot like ringing in the ears. I used to think I was crazy because nobody else heard it, but now I know better. Whether we’re at work or school, most people spend six to eight hours a day under those lights and we just have to deal with it.
I wish I knew how NTs manage to not hear these things! I’m always aware of them, from the sound of the air conditioner or heater to the faint rattling of a ceiling fan. Sitting under a vent or in the path of a fan can be an awful distraction, especially when the temperature is wrong (which is most of the time if I’m not at home). Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t give up climate control for anything, but sometimes it’s really annoying. Music or tv can sometimes drown out the noise, but usually I have to consciously try to ignore it.
This is one that parents of autistic kids really need to understand. I was often told I was throwing a fit over nothing or I was being unreasonable, all while the tag in my shirt or waistband was driving me crazy and I couldn’t make it stop! This kind of unpleasant sensory stimulation can become overpowering for autistic people. Even now, as an adult, I choose clothes without tags or find ways to cut them out cleanly. I have a great pair of jeans that I can’t wear much because I can’t remove the scratchy tag in the waistband. Seams in my socks (or worse, in tights and pantyhose) are equally vexing.
Scratchy or “Bad” Textures
Another one parents need to be aware of. There’s not a lot of rhyme of reason to this, it’s very individual, but there are textures that are simply unbearable for many autistic people. It might be something obvious like scratchy tulle or itchy wool, or it could be something that just feels “wrong” to us like those windbreaker tracksuits from the 90s or vinyl masquerading as leather or even just corduroy. It might be clothing or furniture – before the era of microfiber, lots of upholstery was scratchy and knobbly and set my teeth on edge – or toys or carpeting or sheets. As adults, we can make our own choices about what’s in our homes, but we still run into these offensive textures everywhere else.
I know, that’s a big category, but it’s a very general thing. Of course, we tend to not like loud or sudden noises, but there’s a lot more to it. Even indoors, we often notice the sound of traffic or even wind outside. In crowded restaurants, bars, malls, or any place where there’s a lot of people talking, the constant dull roar of humanity can be too much for us to handle. It’s even worse when there’s music around, too. In such an environment, we might be completely overwhelmed or we might hyperfocus on one person or conversation. Many of us are also bothered by the hum of electronics – a TV on mute is a pet peeve of mine. For some people, the sound of eating or chewing can drive us up the wall. Obviously, noise canceling headphones are non-negotiable in some cases.
This is largely a kids’ issue, but only because people don’t take children seriously when they say they don’t like a food. As children, we don’t have the skills to say “that texture makes me gag”. Even if we do manage to communicate that, we’re often pressured or even forced to eat things we hate anyway. As an adult, about the worst thing I’ve run into is people pressuring me to eat sushi (I tried it a couple of times and they let it go when the first bite went right back into my napkin) or wanting me to eat tofu. People tend to respect an adult who says “I don’t like that texture”, even if they tease us for eating “like a child”. I’m not saying you shouldn’t expose your autistic kid to new foods – you totally should! That’s how we end up eating a decent variety as adults despite our texture issues. But try to pay attention to what your child refuses, and see if texture is a likely culprit.
Yeah, I know, this is another big generality. This is another sensitivity that’s highly individual, but we run into it everywhere. It might be the air freshener in someone’s home, the very distinct smell of a dentist’s office, or the coworker or customer who takes a bath in their perfume or cologne. Personally, I can’t stand the smell of ramen or eggs, and some perfumes/colognes make me gag at first whiff. I also can’t stand “new car smell” – gives me an instant headache. The sharp chemical smells in a hair salon or barbershop might play into an autistic child being unable to tolerate going for a haircut.
All these things may seem small to NTs, but they can all be magnified for autistic people. Every one of these plus lots of others are part of the sensory onslaught we deal with just to live in this world. For the most part, we can handle it as adults, but that’s after years of learning how to cope as children. Be patient with us, recognize what might be stressing us, and you’ll have our everlasting gratitude.
Did I miss anything you run into every day? What’s the worst sensory assault you deal with regularly? Got any coping tips to share?